The Dutch architects combine design and philosophy in works that highlight urgent social and cultural issues. 

Nominated by Aaron Betsky

The modern landscape is littered with abandoned fields and buildings, landfills, and trash heaps, as well as stagnant, inefficient, and soul-killing offices, schools, and shopping centers. Much of what humans build and shape is then left fallow, empty, and ruined. These postindustrial landscapes serve as a major starting point for the projects of Rietveld-Architecture-Art-Affordances (RAAAF), which sees them not as sites of tragedy, but as potential sources of energy, productivity, and enjoyment, with latent excess resources— affordances, in its terms—ready to mine.

RAAAF, composed of brothers Ronald and Erik Rietveld as well as architect Arna Mačkić, often presents these ideas in confrontational ways. For example, Vacant NL, the Dutch pavilion at the 2010 Venice Architecture Biennale, was composed of 10,000 models of government-owned vacant structures, making clear the magnitude of idle property in a nation facing an ever-present housing shortage.

On an altogether different scale, RAAAF challenged the assumption that the office environment comprises various configurations of desks and chairs in The End of Sitting. The interactive installation is based on a concept the studio developed in collaboration with artist Barbara Visser. Visitors were invited to find purchase within a landscape of beveled and irregular surfaces, unlocking countless ways of sitting, straddling, lying, crouching, kneeling, and resting while working. According to Ronald, the idea was “to offer a large variety of standing affordances so that people would be solicited by multiple possibilities for working in different positions, ideally motivating them to switch postures every 30 minutes or so.”

This aggressively novel aspect of their work is present not just in the installations themselves but in RAAAF’s process. “Our interventions are the result of an independent attitude and research agenda, starting from our own fascinations while confronting them with urgent societal issues,” Ronald says. But it can also be attributed to the wide range of backgrounds the team members brought with them when they formed the studio in 2006. Ronald had previously worked as a landscape architect, while Erik delved deep into “the philosophy of embodied cognitive science,” eventually earning a PhD. Mačkić added her architectural bona fides in 2009, but has also completed extensive research on urban destruction in the former Yugoslavia.

"Our interventions are the result of an independent attitude and research agenda, starting from our own fascinations while confronting them with urgent societal issues.”

This union of design and philosophy results in strangely poetic, if haunting, projects. For Bunker 599, RAAAF, together with Atelier de Lyon, cut a concrete 19th-century pillbox in half, revealing its cramped interior spaces and metaphorically reopening a closed chapter of Dutch history. To illustrate its function as part of the New Dutch Waterline—a 53-mile-long lowland that could be intentionally flooded in case of invasion—the studio extended a jetty through the bunker, connecting the large highway above to the lake below. This concrete carbuncle turned out to be a treasure hidden in plain sight: The Dutch government designated it a national monument only after it had been split in two.

For Secret Operation 610, the team built a gigantic robot in an abandoned hangar, its acute angles and sinister forms taking cues from Cold War–era military design. This “brutal object,” as RAAAF calls it, also serves as a classroom, giving easily distracted students some entertainment as it crawls down its accompanying runway on repurposed Caterpillar treads at an “excruciatingly slow pace.”

Although RAAAF has revealed much about the mundane landscapes around us, there are still many more unexplored affordances out there to be discovered. The studio presented a 40-foot “cutout” of The End of Sitting at this year’s Chicago Architecture Biennial, and is working on yet another revelation, this time underground. After Image will present the literal foundation of the Netherlands, a nation built on millions of piers, by excavating the ground beneath a former industrial building.

In the end, the genius of RAAAF is in its strategic interventions that, though small, invite viewers to imagine a completely different way of living. “What interests us,” concludes Ronald, “is what the world would be like if we were free of conventional limits.”

See the rest of this year's new talents here.

“RAAAF operates at the intersection of architecture, art, and landscape, which has interested me for many years. I first came to know Ronald Rietveld’s work when he won the Dutch Prix de Rome, and have followed the practice he built up with his brother, the philosopher Erik Rietveld, ever since. Their landscape interventions have the power to evoke the nature of a place, whether the flat polders of the Netherlands or defensive bunkers and former U.S. Air Force bases, with simple abstract forms. Their conceptual installations have made space—in particular, empty and unused office space—visible. Their office landscape, which will be part of the Chicago Architecture Biennial this year, offers an alternative scenario to how we live and use existing structures. They have been at the forefront in the development of an architecture of affordances, designing potentials and activators rather than mere enclosures.” —Aaron Betsky, dean of the Frank Lloyd Wright School of Architecture

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